The Midnight Guardian (Excerpt)

Enjoy these sample chapters from The Midnight Guardian: A Millennial Novel, from St. Martin’s Griffin, recently released in paperback!

 

PROLOGUE

Berlin. Midnight. March 1936


“Well, Kunz? Do you think it’s true?”

“Nonsense. Fairy stories. Grandmothers’ folk tales.”

“But the Fuhrer must believe it too,” the younger man insisted. “Else why arrange those secret squads we’re not meant to know about?”

“Creating more work, isn’t he? Preparing for the great days to come.”

His comrade nodded but still looked nervous. He had a sense of being watched. Worse, he had a sense of being smelled, even tasted. The street was quiet, and surely no one would dare to confront the SS, not if they knew what was good for them. Yet still…he was sure someone was stalking him.

Kunz lit a cigarette. His companion’s chat annoyed him. He thought he might ask to switch to a daylight patrol.

The sound of breaking glass in an alley made both men jump, despite their strict training.

Kunz drew his pistol. “Who goes there?”

No answer.

He motioned to his fellow guard to keep watch on the street while he inched towards the alley. The younger man nodded, hating the shaking of his hands, wishing he hadn’t heard the stories, and wishing even more that he didn’t believe them.

Kunz rounded the corner, hoping to face a few drunken anarchists, or perhaps some particularly foolhardy Jews. He was disappointed to find nothing but a girl.

He was about to chide her for whatever she’d just broken, but her playful smile stopped him. She was very young, perhaps only fifteen. Her stick-straight black hair was cut in the severe bob that had been so fashionable a few years ago. He wondered why a girl who was otherwise so smartly dressed wouldn’t wear her hair in more stylish curls.

“What are you looking for?” she asked, with a strangely knowing smile. Kunz felt his stomach contract and his ears buzz with a delightful hum. The girl sauntered closer, her eyes glittering hypnotically. All thoughts of duty to his patrol vanished.

She put her hand on his cheek. The touch was cool, almost liquid. He thought his face might melt into that little hand. He didn’t know if he was leaning towards her or she was drawing him in. He hoped it was  the former.

A scant centimeter from her lips, he felt a blazing heat against his half-closed eyes. He jerked his head back to see that the girl’s eyes were swollen and glowing red. A scream began to rise through his larynx, but the sudden, piercing pain in his face changed it to a hiss. He tried to run, but felt the flesh tear from his skull. Her hand had turned to a claw that held him fast.

She smiled again, and something like a gargoyle reared up from inside her face, bulging hard under the skin. Long, shiny white fangs burst from her gums, and in the brief moment of realization that his companion had been quite right, he felt the fangs sink into his neck and proceed to suck him dry.

The younger SS, meanwhile, was sweating, though the night was chilly. The feeling of eyes on him was so strong, he was sure they were leering at his bare flesh instead of his spotless uniform, and he had to fight the urge to wipe them away.

“Kunz? Kunz, what is it, what’s taking so long?”

His voice sounded too small. He wondered if he was the butt of a joke. He knew Kunz wasn’t the only one who thought he was a fool for believing in vampires, and it would be just like Kunz to team with the others and have a bit of fun at his expense. If he sounded too frightened, they’d never let him hear the end of it.

Squaring his shoulders, he ignored his jumping stomach and rounded the corner.

“Kunz! What’s the…”

He was just in time to see Kunz’ empty body drop onto the pavement like a rag doll. The vampire grinned. Blood dripped from her teeth.

“You look frightened. If it’s any consolation, he tasted of fear. Then again, so do you all. The quality of German food has gone into a marked decline since this Third Reich began.”

The trembling SS raised his gun. “Vampire! Vampire!”

“Yes. We shall give you credit for observation.”

But she hadn’t spoken. The voice came from behind him. A hand reached round and twisted the useless gun into a pretzel.

The SS turned to gaze at a male vampire. One red eye winked.

“But you, you never hunt in pairs.” The guard spoke automatically, echoing the words of his grandmother.

The vampires laughed.

“It’s our anniversary. Things have been grim, so we thought we’d push the boat out.”

With that, the male vampire bit into the guard’s neck, taking a slow drink. He pulled away, rolling the blood around in his mouth as he clenched the terrified man’s lips in a pinch to keep him from screaming.

The vampire shook his head regretfully.

“A perfectly terrible bouquet. But waste not, want not.”

And he resumed his meal.

The female circled, smiling, enjoying the sight of the life draining from the guard’s eyes. As his consciousness was fading, he registered something strange in the female’s eyes – fear. She wasn’t looking at him anymore.

The male released him and he landed with a hard thud that shattered his cheekbone.

“Gunther. Paloma. I would not have expected to see you in Berlin.” It was a handsome, although plainly Jewish, man who confronted the vampires. A wooden stake was strapped to his thigh, marking him as a true hunter, a man of the old ways. The Nazi hunters were a very different breed.

“Leon. We hardly expected you, either.” Gunther, his face reverting to its human features, sounded genuinely concerned for the man’s welfare. “It’s not safe for you anymore, surely?”

“We have made…arrangements, the Nazis and I.”

The vampires exchanged a glance, taking note of the hunter’s wry face and angry, shamed eyes.

“You can still leave,” Paloma insisted. She could not keep her eyes from the stake.

“If you think so, you don’t know them.”

“Leon, Leon, we are not your enemy now. You must know that.” Gunther’s tone was gentle and placating.

“I do. But you aren’t the ones who can help me and my family. Not enough. I’m sorry.”

With surprising speed, he snatched one of Paloma’s hairs. The act roused the vampires and they growled, moving in for the kill. Leon drove the stake into Paloma’s heart, dissolving her into dust that choked the dying SS, even as Gunther’s horrible wail ruptured his eardrum. He tried to crawl away from the ensuing fight, but was too weak. Leon secured one of Gunther’s hairs with one hand and staked him with the other. The dust swam into the guard’s eyes.

Leon briskly assessed the SS guard’s wounds and shook his head.

“I wouldn’t save you even if I could,” he murmured.

“Quick work, Arunfeld.” An SS wearing a highly polished Iron Cross strolled up to Leon. “And here you told the lads those older vampires made for a nasty fight.”

Leon tucked the vampires’ hairs more deeply in his pocket, avoiding the SS’ eye.

“Possibly I caught them by surprise.”

“Ah! You mean they thought you would align with them, rather than us? Or is it just that you hunters don’t bother with the older vampires so much? Funny, the way you all know each other. Why don’t you have dinner parties?”

Leon smiled, as he knew he must.

“Well, the Reich values you, Arunfeld. It’s good work you’ve done, training the Nachtspeere. You and your wife, of course. Such a loss.”

The dying SS saw the hunter’s fingers flex, as though hungry for a weapon.

“We were…asked…to serve our country,” Leon demurred. “We knew the risks.”

The SS’ eyes flickered. Whether he was amused or offended was hard to gauge.

“We should tend to these bodies,” Leon announced, watching the dying man’s eyes fade.

“Indeed. An unfortunate waste. But this vampire scourge is nearly past.”

The SS headed for Kunz’ body while Leon bent over the nearly dead man and hauled him over his shoulder. The last thing the guard heard before his final breath sputtered out of him was a heavy, sorrowful sigh and the beginnings of a prayer that, he was sure, was what those cursed Jews spoke for their dead.

He knew full well it wasn’t for him.


CHAPTER ONE

Berlin-Basel train. August 1940


There were three young SS in the dining car, all vying to buy the lovely young blonde a drink. Didn’t she know a finger of schnapps was very healthy before going to bed?

Brigit smiled, taking care not to look any of the men in the eye, willing a blush onto her cheeks. These men weren’t the problem, anyway, it was the other one, slightly superior, marching past them again, fixing her with that unchanging steely glance. She’d seen his eyes on her not five minutes after boarding, and they’d lingered just long enough to beg the question. Now, here they were again, cold and merciless.

Whatever he knows, it’s too much.

The sense of apprehension clawed at the back of her neck, but she ignored it and carried on gently fending off the sweet yet insistent attentions of the younger men. Perhaps the sergeant just didn’t like to see men flirting with a silly Irish girl. If they were going to dispose of their off-duty time so frivolously, it should be with good German stock.

“Gentlemen, please, let the young lady go back to her compartment. You see she doesn’t want any schnapps.”

His voice was low but authoritative, with a hint of condescension. Something that might have been a smile teased about his lips, but came nowhere near his eyes.

The men glanced at him – after all, he was only a sergeant. But they nonetheless inched away from Brigit to gauge her reaction. She hesitated, unsure which way to play this game. She could say that perhaps one drink would, in fact, be very pleasant and hope that the sergeant went away, thinking no worse of her than that she was a tease. Or she could pretend some gratitude to him and seize the opportunity for the solitude she was craving. She only had to hope that he wouldn’t accompany her, and that he didn’t suspect anything, however unlikely that seemed.

Offend none of them. You can do it.

She cast around a dazzling smile.

“It is a bit late. Perhaps you’ll forgive me this evening, and I’ll say good night?”

The sweetness in her voice and sparkle in her eye assured them that all was not lost, that for as long as she and they were on the train together, their chances were very good indeed.

The effusion in their wishes for her good rest was almost touching. Another time, she would have laughed.

She gave the cold-eyed sergeant a pleasant, even slightly grateful nod and slipped by him, willing him to simply glare at her receding back.

He let her take five steps down the corridor before following her.

“Fraulein,” he called, “a moment, please.”

Damn.

She smelled nothing immediately dangerous in him, but it had been many months since she could really trust her senses. There was certainly something in him worth her concern. Possibly an alert had been given out to watch for someone of her description. Or, of course…she wished there was a way to find out, and to know exactly how detailed the warning was.

She wondered if she detected a frisson of annoyance in his face when she stepped back against the wall of the corridor as he approached. A pleasant stroke of luck placed her directly in front of a panel. He could not easily scan the window for a reflection, not if he wanted to tread with any caution.

“Is there a problem?”

She put her head to one side and gazed up at him earnestly. The tiniest vibration in her throat was meant to cloud, and even soothe. Or, at the very least, distract. But it didn’t seem to work. Not well enough, anyway, which had become par for the course.

“You are very young, Fraulein.”

There was almost definitely a sneer in the statement, but that could have many meanings. Brigit willed her expression not to alter.

He smiled suddenly, startling her.

“I’m Maurer,” he announced, his tone generous but his eyes still flinty. He was looking at her too hard, as though hoping to see the shadow of a fang behind her lips. She forced herself to breathe.

“You should be careful, you know, traveling like you are. Alone.”

No mistaking the emphasis on that word, or the brief smirk. Brigit inclined her head, curious.

“Perhaps, I mean to say, ‘unprotected.’”

The intense desire to show him exactly how capable she was of protecting herself swelled up inside her with a hot rush.

“One can hardly feel unprotected with so many fine SS on board.”

There was only sweetness and sincerity in her melodic voice, but Maurer looked neither pleased nor flattered.

But is he fooled?

What he wanted, she could tell, was to touch her, and she almost wished he would, wished he would find an excuse to lay a hand on her skin. Maybe then he’d think twice, be cowed, step back. Think he must be wrong. It would not be what he might expect. The chill of her body was not the iciness of mythology; the cold of death. It was more like a pleasant coolness, and not wholly inhuman. To touch, or, happier, be touched by Brigit, was like sinking a hand into a bowl of fresh cream. A man could roll over and be enveloped in that sweetness. He’d never want to be released. It was a touch she could control, but even at its coldest, it still imparted calm. A promise, an idea of comfort, however illusory.

He didn’t touch her. Instead, he jerked his head, indicating for her to walk on. Hands behind his back, he accompanied her to the door of her compartment. She turned to him, a cheerful smile lighting up her features.

Wouldn’t I just love to show you my other smile. The one that would drain the color from your face and tug the high scream into your throat before I reached out and…

“These are dangerous times, Fraulein. A girl like you wants to be careful.”

Brigit tossed her golden curls and gave him an arch look – the confident seventeen-year-old adventuress, thoroughly enjoying her hasty trip home.

“Thank you, I can manage.”

Still polite, even friendly. Still acting with infinite care.

She slid the compartment door shut behind her and leaned against it, listening to the measured tread of his steps as he marched down the corridor.

And we thought this would be so easy.

It was anything but easy, with so many minefields to navigate. Even at her most innocuous, she engendered scorn and envy from other quarters by traveling in a compartment to herself, dressing in expensively tailored clothes, and possessing such an astonishing beauty. She looked like an arrogant, over-privileged chit dripping in excess. Even the ruse of being Irish was of little help. She was a question mark of a girl, in one way too many.

She cast a glance around the dark, quiet compartment, checking again that everything was in place; that her well-cut blue coat was still hanging with casual insouciance over the mirror. There was something about the train’s efficient amenities and highly polished veneer that irritated Brigit, despite its manifold comforts. The money poured into the Reichsbahn, the surety of the superiority of their trains, it all seemed too indicative of the entire manner of capricious thinking that had landed her here, watching, waiting, wondering.

“British trains are warmer anyway, no matter what anyone says.”

It was not her habit to murmur out loud, but the sound of her true, suddenly dear, London accent was a tiny comfort. It was just about the only thing around her that was still familiar. And it made her feel less alone. She almost marveled at the speed with which her world had been upended and shattered. Two days. An absurd little speck. Or two days, one year, and nine months, to be more exact. Either way, the enormity of the upheaval was easier to bear when tempered with fear.

No, not shattered, that’s not fair.

Her real world, her whole world, was waiting for her, and she could feel him.

Eamon.

The cherished name echoed in her brain, and she didn’t dare even whisper it. She had to retain her control.

Her eyes studiously avoided the upper bunk, where the precious, volatile cargo she was toting was stored. She checked the door again to make sure it was locked. Not that it was any sort of real fortification, but even illusions were welcome now.

Brigit sat by the window and slipped off her shoes. Rubbing her feet, she cracked the blind just enough to peep outside. She concentrated on emptying her mind and enjoying the dark countryside. Her well-trained eyes could discern beauty in all that blackness.

Funny, how much light there can be in darkness, if you know where, and how, to look.

Funny, too, how surprised she was at her own surprise. If there was one thing she knew, it was how quickly one community of men could destroy another. It was one of the easiest acts a human could commit. She and all her kind often thrived on that destruction. Besides, she’d done her own personal share of havoc-wreaking, there was no denying it.

It wasn’t even the first time she’d had her own little rug yanked out from under her, but this was very different.

It’s not just me, now.

Nor was it over. At no time in her long life had she ever been in such protracted potential danger, a situation in which so much of her strength and abilities would have to be channeled in a manner unsatisfying, to say the least. And if ineffective, well…

I can’t fail. I will imitate the action of the tiger, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood. There’s no other option.

She repeated it out loud, attempting to assure herself. She would throw herself into it, and hope for the best.

Berlin to Basel, at the Swiss border; through Switzerland and across Vichy France to Bilbao; a boat to Ireland; a boat to Wales; a train home. She laid out the steps of the journey in her mind like dominoes. It was easier to apply cold logic to the proceedings, rather than dwell on details like the length of the journey’s duration, the long hours of daylight that comprised a European summer, the delays that must characterize wartime travel, however determined these new rulers were to keep things normal and briskly efficient, and the presence of armed guards throughout the train.

If only she could tell if he knew. What would give her away? She seemed to breathe, to blush, her hair shone and her eyes sparkled and he wasn’t a hunter, he wasn’t trained in the finer arts of detection. He wouldn’t discern the skin, the touch, the whisper.

And you have to be one of us to read the history in our eyes.

History. Confounding, exasperating history. Lessons learned over and over, and never learned at all.

Still. It’s not over yet. None of it.

From two cars away, she could hear the rhythmic click-click of the striding boots. She fought down the hot surge of impatience, the rising bile at the Nazi gall. How dare they patrol up and down the corridors all night long, as though the train were a prison? She supposed they fancied they were providing comfort and security for the slightly uneasy passengers. Who, at this stage in the journey, were almost all Germans, bathed in the warm certainty of their nation’s power and absolute justification for the violence and despair they were wreaking on their weak, insolent neighbors. Still, however untouched they yet were by the war, one could not exercise too much care. Besides, this steady marching gave the soldiers a feeling of importance. Their brethren were holding sway in Poland, had broken down France and were now battering England. Soon, they, too, might have more impressive dominion than this sleek, sumptuous train. But until that time, they would assert themselves however they could, and so they patrolled.

Irritants. Brigit shook her head, almost amused at this reduction. Her marvelous strength, so close to useless. The powerful demon she had to soothe and lull into slumber. She caught the scent of Maurer returning, his steps slowing, but not stopping, outside her compartment. So recently, so very recently, a man like this would already have been a memory. Now he was a man to be feared.

A man. To be feared. Oh, Eamon, where am I?

Quickly, silently, she put on her silk pajamas and tucked herself into the narrow bed. Who knew but that they might find some excuse to knock, even enter? At no point could she be seen as doing anything unusual. Her situation was already absurdly delicate. She was in no position to take chances.

 

Copyright 2010 by Sarah Jane Stratford

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